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More fully human: Storytelling in the Boston Artists-in-Residence program

This year, Victor Yang has been working with the Violence Intervention and Prevention Initiative (VIP) at the Boston Public Health Commission.

The team Victor is working with includes Tania Mireles, Geraldy St. Clair, and youth leaders Niasia, Sarah, Damara, Rashan, Lucas, Josiah, and Idiris, among others. One of VIP’s flagship programs is the Youth Organizing Institute that brings together Boston high school students fighting for racial justice. With Victor, they have been running a program that uplifts stories of their lives to heal, bond, and fight for social change. 

This blog post was written by Victor.

Some years before I became an Artist-in-Residence for the City of Boston, before I became a full-time labor organizer, I studied in the academy. For my PhD, I spent four years studying struggles for social change, and what makes movements successful. 

In my 456-page dissertation, I pointed to gaps in the scholarship; I created an index to rank grassroots organizations; I created some fancy diagrams and theoretical frameworks. All that said, I don’t think I wrote anything new. For several years, I had sat like a fly on the wall in activist meetings and interviewed ninety-some veterans in movements for racial justice. What I concluded: the revolution doesn’t need academics to coin new jargon or write new paradigms. We don’t need experts to create more apps and toolkits. I learned what activists and organizers have known for a long time, what they have been doing for a long time—we need to get people in a room, and make a space for them to talk to each other. As long as folks feel seen, heard, and respected, they will share, they will struggle, and they will fight.

In theory, this is simple. None of this is rocket science. We don’t need more people to study struggle. We need more people to engage in the action of struggle. The work of revolution is hard, often thankless work, and the results sometimes come years if not decades later. Often, in organizations, fragile egos, impatience, and time-limited grant funding get the best of us.

As a Boston Artist-in-Residence, I’ve been collaborating with VIP since March. They, of course, have been doing this work for years, and they will be doing this work for a long time.

During the pandemic, I began a series of storytelling workshops with the youth; they have since taken over as the lead organizers and facilitators. Together, we put words to the rhythm of the lives we live now; we draw rivers to mark the milestones in our futures. This work under pandemic is not new. The format may be different: we divide in breakout rooms over Zoom; most of us have never met each other in person. But we bare our souls all the same, as awkward and funny as it may feel. The screen paints us as pixels and squares; but in our words, in our struggles, in the hopes and fears and dreams that we share, we are fully human.

I grew up as a closeted Chinese kid in Kentucky. I had a cleft lip, acne craters, and glasses so heavy they left welts on my nose. In the span of five years, I had attended five schools. On the rare occasion when I made friends, I had to leave them soon after.

I found my constant in a piece of plastic: a public library card, along with the books it gave me access to. Twenty-some years later, I’m attempting a novel of my own. When people ask why I write, I tell them that I write for my younger self, to write the kind of books that I wish I could have read as a kid.

Not long ago, my housemate and I were talking after he returned from a Black Lives Matter protest in Boston. 
“I’m in full agreement with their policy platform,” he said. Body cameras for cops. Divestment from police budgets. More funding for health, education, and social services. But my question is, is this what people really want?

What do you mean? I asked.

I mean, if they gave us everything we asked for, would that be enough?

I’m still mulling over his question. I’ve been mulling over this question for the past ten years. I’ve been part of efforts that have won millions for housing in communities of color, doubled the pay for low-income union members, and passed pro-immigrant legislation in the most conservative of cities. Still, every time our work makes the headlines, I never feel as elated as I want to be. Policy can reform the rules that bind formal institutions, but the ways in which we live and breathe in the world, interacting with those around us - the sum of those micro-interactions may remain unchanged.

Yes, we want fair funding formulas and a living wage and a people’s budget. Yes, we want laws to level the playing field, because this society has always treated some as lesser than others. But the policies alone are not all that what we ultimately want. What we want is the daily experience of dignity—to walk, hold our heads up, and know that when people look us in the eye, they see us as fully human. We want to be seen, and we want to be heard.

This is the project of community organizing. This is the project of artmaking, of storytelling, of blossoming imagination. To interrogate why the world operates in the ways that it does, and to narrate alternative visions for the future. This, I believe, is my life’s work; and it is the work of the young people and staff of the Violence Intervention and Prevention Initiative.

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